I was told that this is no ordinary restaurant. Nuages de Lune is a continental bistro
lurking underneath a five-storey structure mostly untouched by the ageing sodium street-lighting at the unfashionable end of Clapham. The muted red sandstone exterior is decorated with rust-bubbled wrought iron railings that seem to imprison the building, holding it back from passers-by. Stepping down the gaping maw of the basement entrance, lit by a single electric bulb ill-at-ease within a ramshackle Victorian gas lamp, the black door swings open before me. A grinning, mustachioed face nods out from the shadows within and a pale hand invites me to select a table.
"Is just for one, si?" says the smiling maitre d', removing my coat from my shoulders before I could mumble any reply.
He's already disappeared off into the dark peripheries, one of the pools of blackness untouched by the minimal lighting thrown by a handful of low lux bulbs and the diaspora of a regal chandelier: flickering white fingers dripping wax onto sparkling crystal candlesticks.
I sit down on a battered rattan chair, wondering whether anyone else is present. The grey statues and tall potted plants hide a full view of the entire restaurant, but the presence of a susurration of whispered conversation and the occasional clink suggest that I am not the only diner tonight.
The décor is a strange mix of antique styles, from medieval to Victorian. The more I peer at the details the more uncertain the results. I turn away from a dark oak carving of a man with an anguished expression and flinch at the waiter's face that is perched silently at my left shoulder.
He places a carafe of water and a bottle of Hungarian Bull's Blood next to a pair of finely cut wine glasses that have appeared from who knows where, along with a starched white napkin and silver cutlery, ornately detailed with serifs running down the handles.
My mind wheels but my jaw, like my Adam’s Apple, merely bobs up and down and produces no sound.
"Soup?" he repeats.
"What is it?" I finally manage.
"What, like soup of the day?"
"Si. Like that. But," he says, pointing to the small high windows at the front of the restaurant, "is night."
I stare at the dimly lit brickwork and railings just visible through the glass.
"So, soup of the night, then?"
"Si." He bows and retreats behind a black lacquered oriental dressing screen that depicts golden frogs leaping, mouths agape, at the legs of storks taking flight. I pour out a glass of blood red wine and place my napkin across my lap.
When the bowl arrives containing my soup I can't believe my eyes - or any of my other senses.
The steam sits like a low mist over a marsh, gently swirling around the wide black iron bowl but never rising up into the air. The soup itself is dark, like strong coffee with a barest hint of cream. Unidentifiable lumps breach the surface, looking like isolated islands in a dark sea; archipelago waiting to wreck unwary sailors upon their cliffs. I glance at the candle sitting the other side of my bowl, a flickering lighthouse warning travellers of peril.
I can't identify what is in my bowl by sight so I bend forward and sniff.
Petrichor and mushrooms, earthy smells of peat and pubs. Red wine and stout, late night kebabs and a side-serving of vinegary chips. Weed in a dark, near-empty car park.
I've never experienced anything like it and I wonder what kind of taste sensation I’m in for. My spoon hovers above the swampy surface and then slices a shallow scoop from the brown liquid. It sits on my tongue, hot in temperature as well as in spice. It tastes of garlic, vintage cheese and fresh salty sweat; of pungent fungi, butchered meat and midnight dew on a mountain meadow; of pale faces and fingers tapping at windows, drunken lust, shame and embarrassment. The familiar safety of freshly laundered bedlinen and the comfort of a warm body. Wet dreams and nightmares. Fear and terror; hidden heavy breathing on a dark path; the sudden creak of a bedroom floorboard. The hoot of an owl flitting past the Moon, low and massive against a church spire that looks rather like the candle in front of me. I fear that I'm hallucinating as the silver sphere orbits slowly above my soup bowl before dropping below the horizon of the restaurant table. A small white feather floats down from the darkness above me and brushes my hand.
I'm still holding my spoon.
I stare down at my empty bowl, no recollection of the mechanics of the meal.
"You enjoy, no?" asks the waiter, whisking the bowl away and plucking the spoon from my slack fingers.
"I... yes, enjoy," is all I can say as he retreats into the gloom.
I mop my brow with the napkin and a few confused blinks later he's back. "For main course, you want meat?"
"Two choices." He holds up two fingers to emphasise the point. "First is, how you say, like—a blood sausage."
Images of a severed jugular vein spurting crimson liquid over my napkin play in my imagination. I shake my head and the waiter tells me the alternative.
"Yes. Steak tatare, please," I whisper.
He reaches inside his jacket and retrieves an improbably long, pointed piece of dark wood and places it carefully on the table.
I stare at it. "What...?"
"Is your stake, signore. Your Tatar, he come soon." He's backing away, smiling. "Good luck, signore."
A door bangs open somewhere unseen, a horse whinnies and the smells of fermented milk, smoke, leather and fur - with top notes of blood on steel and endless grassy steppes - spill through the suddenly silent restaurant. I take a long swig of East European red and, rising from my chair, curl my fingers around the mahogany stake.